EPA has no plans for buyout at Herculaneum

Thursday, January 17, 2002

Some residents of Herculaneum say temporary relocation isn't good enough and want the federal government to buy homes and property contaminated by their proximity to the nation's largest lead smelter.

But buyouts are not being considered, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.

"I'm not aware of any talks about a buyout," spokeswoman Hattie Thomas said. "The whole thought is the orders that we have in place and the cleanups being done both inside the house and in the yards will be protective."

The EPA announced plans Tuesday to temporarily remove about 100 households in Herculaneum, site of the Doe Run Co. lead smelter. Those to be relocated are considered most at risk of lead poisoning.

About 2,800 people live in Herculaneum, 30 miles south of St. Louis. Tests have repeatedly turned up lead contamination -- often in dangerous levels -- in soil, on streets, inside houses, in schools and elsewhere.

The relocation program will affect households with children age 6 and younger where soil lead levels exceed federal standards; households with pregnant women; and others who are potentially sensitive to lead exposure.

About 200 people turned out Tuesday for a meeting with state and federal officials. Residents expressed particular concern about the welfare of their children.

Children at risk

The EPA tested nearly 80 of the town's children age 6 or younger and found that 24 percent met the federal standard for lead poisoning. High levels of lead in the blood of children puts them at risk for reduced intelligence, behavioral disorders and other problems.

Melissa Alexander, who lives near the smelter, said homework that takes most children a half-hour takes her son three hours.

She blames damage caused by years of lead poisoning, and wants to be permanently relocated.

"I've done everything they've asked me to do, and I'm here to tell you the contamination is not going away," Alexander said. "I don't care what you do."

Buyouts are not unprecedented in Missouri.

In 1983, the federal government began buying up all property in another St. Louis-area town, Times Beach, after it was discovered that dioxin-contaminated waste oil had been sprayed for years on streets as a dust-control measure.

Eventually, all 2,000 residents were moved out at a cost of $23 million. EPA spent more than $118 million to incinerate dioxin-contaminated soil and debris from Times Beach and 26 other sites in eastern Missouri.

"It was a different situation in Times Beach, different contaminant," Thomas said. "Part of the reason for the buyout at Times Beach was the town was on a flood plain. It was going to continue to be flooded.

"There really is no comparison."

Doe Run officials aren't convinced temporary relocation is necessary.

"Doe Run supports any effort to safeguard the health of Herculaneum residents as long as it is based on science and the facts," company spokeswoman Barbara Shepard said. "We believe that the relocation program is not justified by the facts of this situation."

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources is charged with monitoring water and air quality in Herculaneum.

DNR spokeswoman Connie Patterson said that if lead levels aren't reduced, more drastic measures -- including permanent buyouts and even a shutdown of the smelter -- could be considered.

"That's probably way, way, way down the line," Patterson said. "I don't know that's something at this point we'd even want to speculate on."

DNR officials believe most of the lead comes from emissions from the stacks at the Doe Run plant, and from lead dust and debris that blows off trucks passing to and from the plant.

Contamination is bad enough at some homes that yards have been completely dug up. The city uses street sweepers that clean up lead and other materials from the road.

Many residents said at the meeting Tuesday that many yards in the town were found re-contaminated just a year or two after previous cleanups.

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